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Miracle at Christmas for former Mora, Pecos basketball players

December 25, 2018

Xander.

Just kind of rolls off the tongue, right?

It’s the shortened version of the Latin form of Alexandros, a Greek name that most of us know as Alexander. The first letter is truly the MVP of the entire name, and it’s pronounced as a Z. By definition, Xander essentially means “warrior.”

It also means his dad can spend the rest of his days calling his son “X,” an extremely cool one-letter name many a father would acknowledge with a silent head nod of envious approval.

“It does sound pretty good,” says P.J. Cde Baca, the father in waiting. “We were looking for something unique and this one is just that. And, yeah, I do like ‘X’.”

What it really means is something more, something that will forever be applied to Xander’s mother. She is, by any sense of definition, a living miracle.

The odds dictated that she’d never make it this far, that she’d never have children or wind up where she is. The odds never stood a chance considering the true warrior they were dealing with.

Known by her maiden name of Kayla Romero when she was a standout basketball player at Mora High School, the married and soon-to-be-mom now known as Kayla Cde Baca is defying those odds in ways no one could have imagined just a few short years ago.

She has beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma twice, doing so while growing up in a Northern New Mexico community that places Rangers hoops right up there with religion, family and embracing the rural lifestyle. Mora is a tight-knit community that protects its own, where one person’s story is quickly spread as if it belongs to everyone.

What Kayla, 23, has gone through is nothing short of inspiring. Not long after her 15th birthday she was diagnosed for the first time. In many ways, that first bout was enough to take anyone down for good. The chemo and radiation had all the predictable results; charred tissue, hair loss, constant nausea and massive weight loss that saw her drop roughly 30 pounds from her athletic 5-foot-1, 115-pound frame.

She got through it and got back on the court, wearing her green and white No. 32 Rangerettes uniform. The future was looking good and her health was returning.

“The oncologists told me there was less than a 3 percent chance of me getting that kind of cancer again,” Kayla says. “My doctor said it was more common in boys than girls so, yeah, I was thinking it was kind of over, you know?”

The second diagnosis came when she was 17, ending any chance at playing her senior year. It also meant long rounds of chemo at an Albuquerque hospital, a place where she first visited with The New Mexican and talked about her condition.

Back then she recounted a story about sitting next to a little boy undergoing treatment, how he felt so ill during the process that he couldn’t cope. In some ways it gave her strength and set her life on a different trajectory. As a teenager she leaned on her faith, family and the unflappable nature of her mother, Annette Velasquez. Velasquez never left her daughter’s side, becoming a source of strength and stability that proved invaluable as Kayla went through the same peaks and valleys she’d endured just two years before.

“Maybe the hardest part was that second diagnosis,” Kayla says. “But my mom, she always tried to keep everything positive and that, I think, was the most important thing for me.”

One of Kayla’s dreams was to help Mora win a state championship in The Pit, something the town hadn’t experienced since 1988. She would attend a handful of games when she was able, doing so with a surgical mask and her family at her side. She did get into one game after her diagnosis as senior when then-Rangerettes coach Mark Cassidy got her a few minutes in December 2012.

That was right around the time she and P.J.,who played basketball for Pecos High, started to learn about one another. Mora and Pecos are bitter rivals on the basketball court and P.J. was part of a team that was considered a favorite for a state title in March 2013. It never happened and shortly after graduation he joined the Marines, taking him to Texas.

It was through Facebook that the two started chatting. She traveled to San Antonio a couple of times to see him and before long the two were inseparable. They got engaged in 2016, married in 2017 and earlier this year Kayla earned a degree in nursing.

The Cde Bacas now call Anchorage, Alaska, home. P.J. is stationed there as a member of an Air Force special operations until October, 2021. This past weekend, it was 10 degrees when the couple was getting ready to make the long trip back to New Mexico for the Christmas holiday.

“We had three hours and 40 minutes of sunlight,” Kayla says. “The summers are really nice but, yeah, it’s always dark and cold in the winter.”

This fall the entire region was shaken by a powerful 7.0 earthquake that struck when Kayla was still asleep.

“We have this big TV in our room and I was watching it shake off its thing,” she says. “Never had that happen in Mora.”

Kayla plans to put her degree to work as a nurse in pediatric oncology — but first things first.

Xander is due in two months, making him the first grandchild on either side of the family. In so many ways he was never supposed to be here because Kayla was told years ago that the rigors of cancer treatment sent her body into ovarian failure. There was a chance she’d eventually bear a child, but the odds were so low that no one expected it.

That said, the odds are no match for this woman. At 23, she is living proof that there’s no such thing as a no-win situation. The couple took a home test to see if she were pregnant but decided to go see a doctor for confirmation.

It wasn’t until the proof came rolling in that they called family and friends back home to share the news. Now seven months along, she and P.J. settled on the name Xander early on. Xander Andre Cde Baca, to be exact.

“They stories I’m going to tell him about his mom. …,” P.J. says. “It’s pretty unbelievable what she went through, yes sir.”

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